Celaya: Why I support the Santa Clara County SEIU 521 strike 
Jennifer Celaya is featured with members of SEIU Local 521 in this file photo. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Celaya.

In addition to being a candidate for Santa Clara County supervisor in District 2, I have been employed with the county for more than 17 years in different capacities. I am also a small business owner and a social justice activist in San Jose.

It is very interesting that when it comes to organizing workers’ rights in the private sector a vast majority of Santa Clara County residents are supportive of organized labor. However, this solidarity with workers is less strong when it comes to public employee unions. And to add to the injury, sadly, while some of the county supervisors have publicly supported the rights of unionized private workers, when it comes to their own employees, their actions and support leave much to desire.

Many county employees find this double standard on part of the county appalling. When it comes to private sector employees’ collective bargaining rights and wellbeing, not only do our elected officials march in support of these workers, but also allocate public tax dollars to support them, as demonstrated by the county’s partnership with Working Partnerships USA for the creation of Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE).

The discourse about county employees, for the most part, has failed to include relevant facts, which are necessary to know in order to get the whole picture about SEIU workers striking for the first time in four decades.

Equal fight; different support

A common misconception about public employee unions is that their members are greedy. In reality, many county employees have, during hard economic times, given back to the community by taking pay cuts. While SEIU 521 members in 2011 took a 10 percent pay cut to help the county keep open its services to the community, county executives, including Jeff Smith, and management did not share the pain. In fact, on May 24, 2011, during public comment, workers expressed that while the county was cutting social workers and other service staff who directly serve the community, the county was exempting executive management from those cuts.

Another misconception is that county employees are enriching themselves with high pay. The reality is that, compared to similar counties in California, Santa Clara County employees in many departments make substantially less than their counterparts in comparable counties, including employees on the Assessor’s office, employment counselors, social workers, nurses, technical staff and employees at the Valley Medical Center.

For years, Santa Clara County has experienced a mass exodus of qualified employees in many departments, including the Social Services agency and Valley Medical Center, due to the lack of competitive wages. The failure to address fair wages is, in the long run, costing taxpayers so much more than paying workers fair wages. Another reality for SEIU members is that many, from social workers to employment counselors, have for years worked out of class, in violation to the County Merit System rules. And despite the fact that independent auditors have ruled in favor of county workers, who seek realignment to reflect the work they do, the county has refused to comply.

Unsustainable public employee pensions

One of the biggest public concerns is public employee pensions. Nevertheless, public employees are not the ones who lost hundreds of millions of dollars by making highly risky investments with public pension funds. The culprit is CalPERS, not the workers. An honest evaluation of CalPERS’ performance demonstrates poor judgement and insufficient returns. Some of those investment decisions have over the years led to serious loses, such as their ENRON and PG&E investments. And while CalPERS continues to gamble away public employee pensions, the county is penalizing public employees for CalPERS’ risky decisions by asking them to pay more into their pensions and health care — instead of demanding accountability from CalPERS.

Fighting for more than wage increases

SEIU 521 workers have decided to strike for the benefit of the entire community. For years, SEIU 521 members have denounced publicly and in writing the staff shortages in many departments, including the Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Families and Children Services, Valley Medical Center and the Receiving Assessment Intake Center (RAIC) to no avail.

The county’s employee unions have for years proposed doable and cost-effective solutions to maximize the quality and efficiency of the services provided to the community, yet their proposals have been mostly dismissed.

Fighting for dignity and respect

Although county employees have denounced government corruption and waste of public tax dollars, instead of correcting the problem, the county’s leadership has condoned this waste by paying millionaire lawsuits brought against the county by government whistleblowers who have been retaliated against and, in some cases, terminated for exposing county corruption.

Likewise county employees have been subjected to bullying, retaliation, intimidation, discrimination and toxic work environments. Age discrimination is rampant in the county with many elder workers forced into early retirement and some of them experiencing bullying at the hands of their supervisors. In one particular case, an older worker in the In-Home Supportive Services Department had to be taken in a stretcher to the hospital after suffering a heart attack due to bullying by his supervisor.

During the failed contract negotiations, SEIU members asked for dignity and respect, which costs nothing. The county’s labor relations negotiators returned SEIU’s proposal after crossing out the words dignity and respect. In a county that prides itself as progressive, its response to SEIU 521 could not be more offensive and contradictory to its own image.

Unions such as SEIU 521 have had enough and are fighting back. Make no mistake; SEIU 521’s fight is not self-serving. These workers are the backbone and heart of the county. They know the problems and they demand solutions.

SEIU 521 workers are not the public’s enemy, but a strong ally fighting for positive change in Santa Clara County for the benefit of families, children and seniors and the most vulnerable in our community. Their fight for the wellbeing of our county deserves our respect and support.

Jennifer Celaya works as a health service representative for the county. She is a social activist and candidate for Santa Clara County Supervisor in District 2.

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